James Boswell

The Fall of London: The Colosseum


Not on display

James Boswell 1906–1971
Lithograph on paper
Image: 133 × 95 mm
Presented by Ruth Boswell, the artist's widow 2000


The Colosseum is one of eight small lithographs Boswell made in 1933 describing The Fall of London. Ron Heisler believes that they were originally conceived for a book by Frank McIlraith and Roy Connolly called Invasion From The Air which describes a Fascist invasion of England (information supplied by Ron Heisler August 2003). The theme of the book, which was published in 1934, is reminiscent of Boswell’s prints, which illustrate both popular uprisings in the City of London and horrific scenes of the city in ruins. The scene is one of violence and conflict as armed men shoot at the advancing crowds of people waving flags and banners. A large portrait hangs on the wall of the ruined building the demonstrators have targeted. St Paul’s rises up in the background, a symbol of the stability and order that is being threatened. Boswell may have chosen the subject as a result of the a march which had taken place in London in October 1932, one year before this print was made. One hundred and fifty thousand people crowded in to Trafalgar Square to present a petition to Parliament calling for the abolition of the Means Test. It is likely that Boswell attended this event, and he contributed a number of cartoons to a book titled Hunger March Cartoons which was published in 1934. The title of this lithograph is ambiguous as there is no building with this name in the City of London. Boswell, however, may be alluding to the Roman colosseums which were built as places of spectacle and frequently entertained crowds with tournaments.

Boswell learned the art of lithography by attending evening classes taught by the artist James Fitton (1899-1982) at London County Council’s Central School of Arts and Crafts in Southampton Row. His mastery of the technique is evident from this powerful and dense image. He was undoubtedly influenced by the French artists Gustave Doré (1832-1883), and Honoré Daumier (1808-79). Like these artists Boswell received his inspiration by walking in the city at evenings and at the weekends when the narrow and winding streets of London were deserted. The richness of detail and shocking nature of some of the scenes also recalls the series by Francisco de Goya (1746-1828), The Disasters of War. These graphic images portray the death and destruction which the artist himself witnessed during the Peninsular War (1807-14).

Boswell made these lithographs in the same year that he became a member of the Artists International Association. Founded in 1933 this group was composed of politically engaged artists and designers, including James Fitton and Clifford Rowe (1904-89). The movement was founded as a reaction to the Great Depression of 1929 to 1936 which led to mass unemployment amongst the working classes. This period also witnessed Hitler’s rise to power in Germany and, as a direct consequence of this, the foundation of the Joint Committee for Anti-Fascist Action in Britain. Many of the artists, including Boswell, became members of the Communist Party and had as their objective, to use art as a ‘weapon of the proletariat in the economic and political struggle against the bourgeoisie’ (Donald Drew Egbert, Social Radicalism and the Arts, London 1970, p.497). Although Boswell’s series was not published, the lithographs powerfully express his reaction to the political climate of the time and the consequences of the rise of Fascism. William Feaver described the prints of The Fall of London: ‘Here was the long-awaited apocalypse: looting and mass panic, as familiar landmarks – Waterloo, the British Museum, a Lyons Corner House and London Bridge – toppled’ (Feaver, p.5).

Further reading:
William Feaver, Boswell’s London: Drawings by James Boswell Showing Changing London from the Thirties to the Fifties’, London 1978
Barry Curtis, ‘James Boswell’, Block no.1, 1979, pp.53-6
James Boswell: Extracting the Dream Reality, exhibition catalogue, Austin/Desmond Fine Art, London 1999

Heather Birchall
September 2003

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